Relationship PTSD: What Causes It?

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PTSD is an extreme anxiety disorder caused by experiencing a life-threatening event or situation. It’s characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance of things that could remind a person of the trauma, moodiness, and hyperarousal, Aaron Tendler, MD, chief medical officer of Brainsway, a mental health tech company, tells Health. “These four clusters of symptoms persist over at least one month and impair patients’ ability to function normally in daily life,” he says.

An abusive relationship can lead to PTSD, Dr Tendler says because the traumatic events that took place during the relationship can cause the symptoms to stay present during the relationship, as well as long after the relationship has ended. “When these symptoms are present for a period of time, it can be diagnosed as PTSD,” Dr Tendler explains.

What are the signs of PTSD?

People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. “They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people,” Dr. Tendler says. Those with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.

Depression is a common co-occurring diagnosis in people with PTSD. In fact, researchers have found that people who have or have had a PTSD diagnosis are three to five times more likely to have a depressive disorder.

Are some people more susceptible to PTSD?

The chances of developing PTSD depend on many factors, including individual resilience traits, prior trauma, prior mood and anxiety disorders, coping methods, substance use, and support systems.

“It can happen to anyone,” Dr. Tendler says. “A number of factors can increase the chances that someone will develop PTSD, many of which are not under that person’s control. You can develop PTSD when you go through, see, or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation.”

Healing after an abusive relationship

Recovery from trauma is different for everybody, but a psychiatrist or therapist can help find the right path.

“I remind trauma survivors that they are not alone and that feeling of shame and guilt after enduring trauma are normal,” Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director for California-based Community Psychiatry, tells Health. She also explains to them why this occurs by discussing changes in the brain, and how children and adults tend to blame themselves when a loved and trusted individual perceives them as subservient and routinely gaslights and dejects them.

“I help them recognize their strengths and aspirations and find their voice again by providing them with therapy and initiating medications to target their depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms when warranted,” Dr Magavi says. The therapy can take many forms, including mindfulness activities, yoga, dance, art, and exercise. “Catharsis of any form allows trauma survivors to practice self-compassion,” she explains. Dr Magavi may also ask her patients to create lists of reasons why they are not to blame, read these out loud, and process associated emotions with her. “When they are ready, I encourage them to speak to me as if I am the individual who hurt them; I encourage them to release all their emotions freely,” she adds.


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